By Trevor Busch
Throughout much of the 20th century during the post-colonial period, much of Africa was truly living up to its less-than congenial sobriquet as the Dark Continent. A nom de guerre once applied by the continent’s imperialist overlords, the post-colonial descent into violence, dictatorship and even genocide was proving the boundaries drawn on maps by bickering imperialist European powers at the end of the 19th century was still taking its toll on Africa’s present — as it still does today.
Today’s Africa is finally a reawakening giant that has often seen the worst that humanity offers the world. Tribalism, genocide, coups in descending order, apartheid, abject poverty, kleptocracies, child warfare, blood diamonds, warlordism, failed states — there are encouraging signs that in many instances the continent is freeing itself from the ravages of the past. Some of the old dictators have finally gone — notably Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Mobutu Sese Seko in the Congo, and old-school authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. There are still some perennial bad apples — Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe comes to mind — but as a whole much of Africa seems increasingly ready to join a family of nations as developed and free societies.
In the early 1970s, things were much different. Africa was a wild west of cowboy diplomacy as both the Soviet Bloc and the United States faced off in numerous African backwaters over ideological differences, with both sides arming their own ideologically-friendly regimes in a deadly game of Cold War cat and mouse.
Unfortunately freedom — no matter what side of the political spectrum Africans found themselves under these various regimes — was an unintended casualty of proxy warfare.
American novelist John Updike stepped into this maelstrom with The Coup (1978). Set in a fictional sub-Saharan African nation known as Kush during the early 1970s, it follows the struggles of dictator Col. Ellellou in attempting to prevent a pro-Western coup from sweeping him from power and instituting a style of government and economy he most hates.
Updike is a two-time Pulitzer prize winning author best remembered for his “Rabbit” series which followed the exploits of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom over the course of several decades. A respected literary critic and frequent contributor to The New Yorker, Updike was widely considered one of the finest American satirists and authors of his day before his death in 2009.
While The Coup closely follows events in Africa involving Col. Ellellou and his failing regime, it also serves as a scathing rebuke of American Cold War foreign policy in Africa, and is illustrative of the contradictions and hypocrisy that were inherent in both superpowers propping up tin-pot dictators in the name of freedom. Col. Ellellou is virulently anti-American, with much narration focused on his time in America studying at a college in the Mid-West, and vividly describes how a poor black foreigner might come to view the affluent American society of the mid-1950s, complete with its prejudices and messianic worldviews overwhelmingly intact.
Transversely, it becomes apparent to the reader that Col. Ellellou’s hatred for America and the capitalist ideal — his radical dedication to what he calls “Islamist Socialism” — has blinded him from being able to constructively view the negatives in his own society. Fanatically dedicated to keeping out all traces of Western influence, Col. Ellellou would rather let his people starve (as they are throughout most of the novel) than accept American aid. Through the hybrid character of Ellellou, Updike takes the reader on a journey that exposes the best and worst of 20th century Africa as well as America.
Updike is a master of prose, linking together words and ideas with a command of vocabulary that literally staggers the imagination. The Coup, for instance, is written in a format which makes Col. Ellellou the third-person narrator of what is essentially his own biography, a bizarre novelistic style choice.
Some critics have described Updike’s tendencies toward long run-on sentences, huge paragraphs, and flowery language as simply symptomatic of a need for a better editor, ascribing little merit for his novel’s plot developments or even story direction — Updike has been described in the past as a “hack with a thesaurus”.
While his detractors — and there have been many — see Updike as a master and commander of language and style but missing on content and quality, it is these same qualities that have endeared him to generations of readers in North America and around the world.
That being said, there are aspects of The Coup which are not well executed, including the story itself. Col. Ellellou — seemingly entirely competent in critiquing America and the problems with his current regime — is an intelligent leader. However, he makes decisions that are unusual, shows weakness when he should show strength, and appears disinterested in the sinister plots swirling just underneath the thin veneer of his power — in short, he can blame little about his downfall on someone other than himself. Ellellou seems more interested in how the people will perceive him and his decisions rather than the ministrations of his traitorous administration, focusing on religious zeal, or esoteric or mythological signs from above or beyond, to guide his decisions in the real world. Although Ellellou is nothing if not a fascinating character for these reasons, it tends to beg the question how he attained power in the first place, something which Updike mostly side-steps in the novel.
Other characters in The Coup are sometimes almost laughably one-sided, especially women, who serve almost no purpose for Ellellou other than sexual concubines for his satisfaction, although he has four wives and an undisclosed number of children.
While Updike’s The Coup is a fascinating exploration of how late 20th century Americans viewed their nation’s own foreign policy choices through the viewpoint of a hostile but perceptive outsider, the novel falls entirely short of greatness.
The reader is left wondering if The Coup is meant to be an abstract polemic or a realistic tale of a violent change of government in a poor African nation. Perhaps Updike himself wasn’t sure — although he manages to convey his message, the novel’s design and overall story fail to inspire much loyalty on the part of the reader.